Translation

The denouement of Amistad emphasizes that everyone speaks the same language. John Quincy is able to connect with Cinque because they both ‘understand’ the African violet (2:02:39), the metaphor of killing the lion, and the ‘very nature of man’, which Quincy explains in his trial speech is a state of freedom. The freedom American colonists sought from Britain is equivalent to the freedom described in the Declaration of Independence is equivalent to the freedom Cinque and the rest of the Africans seek. This is similar to the framing Queen Latifah provides for Mama Africa– these are universal stories, if we focus on our commonalities we can finally identify with the other.

But the fact that many things don’t translate equally across socio-historical situations. “That “language itself [is] an unstable exchange between its speakers, (11, quoting Lyotard)” is obvious in every conversation in Amistad. The linguistic barriers are barely overcome with the introduction of the translator (who is basically just a voice for Cinque). When Baldwin goes to tell Cinque that they have to go to trial for the third time, the translator is at a loss for words– there is no way to translate “should” because you either do it or you don’t.

In her book, Artificial Africas, Ruth Mayer describes how cultural contact always implies translation, and since relations are always unequal, “translation almost invariably involves trickery– as each side tries to manipulate the other more or less subtly into complying with its own values and interests…The systems of cultural communication can thus be said to oscillate between the need for understanding, the desire for control, and the fear of co-optation. (10)” Amistad treats the word freedom as ahistorical–freedom means the exact same thing and has the same connotations for Americans, Africans, etc. But the realities of translating freedom across contexts, such as in Iraq, has proven more difficult.

So what does the word freedom mean for each context and in what ways are Cinque and John Quincy Adams/Baldwin using trickery in this unstable cultural communication?

[All citations from Ruth Mayer. Artificial Africas. Hanover: University Press of New England, 2002.]

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One Response

  1. The film did spend a great deal of energy on stressing the universality of concepts like “the nature of man” and “freedom.” Or rather the universality of the American conceptions of “the nature of man” and “freedom” not even according to the popular interpretations of the time-period in which the film is set, but according to what the seemingly contemporary image of America and her past. This is the glorified image that skims over the civil war (as the film dismisses as the looming last battle of the evil, pro-Slavery South and the pious, abolitionist North). This image of American history emphasizes the wisdom of the founding fathers and the supposed permanence of their ideas, which we are to assume have been interpreted and revered in the same way since the day they were written. So, when Cinque mentions that he will appeal to his ancestors, we are to assume that John Quincy Adams did the same by asking the court to remember the ideals that their country was founded on (implying universality of the “forefathers = ancestors” idea and also a universal morality of slavery as bad).
    To get back to your question, I think the film is trying to convince us that “freedom” meant the same thing for the Africans and the Americans, and it uses Cinque’s “Give us free” moment to epitomize this idea. The abolitionists are on one side and the slavers on the other. In reality, though, I think it’s more likely that the Africans were asking for their immediate release and return to Africa, whereas the Americans were deciding whether the Africans deserved freedom and were legally qualified for that status. These are two very different arguments and perspectives that I think the film successfully obscures, resulting in a nicely-wrapped up product: a moral, feel-good tale that’s easy to swallow.

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